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More Things Than Are Dreamt of in Your Philosophy

What Dreams May Come is a somewhat insipid story combining Robin Williams, melodrama, and a great deal of very beautiful art direction to create a curious vision of the afterlife. It is about a man named Chris who meets a woman named Annie and falls in love with her. They get married, have two kids, and lose both kids in a car accident when they are teenagers. Annie begins to suffer from depression. Then, Chris is killed in a car accident and is whisked away to heaven where he meets Albert, an old friend, who will guide him in his new life after life. Meanwhile, back on earth, Annie becomes too depressed to cope with life and kills herself, which is a one-way ticket to hell.

Chris has himself a quest: To journey from heaven to hell, rescue his wife from the dark prison of her own mind, and return. His journey falls squarely into the pattern of the monomyth, or hero cycle, outlined by Joseph Campbell. The “call to adventure” comes when Chris hears that his wife is in hell. Albert and The Tracker become his helpers along the way. He crosses the threshold of adventure in a “night-sea journey,” taking a boat to hell over stormy waters. There are various tests along the way: Chris makes some startling discoveries, then he has to actually locate Annie, and once he has found her he must make her recognize him and her own situation. The climax of his endeavors results in success, whether we call it an apotheosis, sacred marriage, or elixir theft (with Annie being the elixir), and Annie and Chris fly back across the threshold to heaven.

It is here, I would say, that the monomyth within the movie, and the movie itself, breaks down. Chris has returned to heaven where his adventure began, but he has gained something (his wife . . . actually his whole family) along the way. This is exactly as it should be. However, Chris and Annie then decide to go back and live their lives on earth over again, and the entire movie (which had been operating at times on a very grand, epic, and noteworthy level) devolves into a trite Hallmark moment as the lovers meet as children in New Jersey (of all places). The cuteness is positively cringe-worthy and totally unnecessary.

The movie also never gets its pacing quite right, breaking up the action of the quest far too often with extremely weighty flashbacks that tend to drag. Sometimes these flashbacks provide valuable information and character development, but they still seem out of place, inspiring frustration rather than heightening tension. The movie’s philosophy is rather a sad affair, full of warm-fuzzies but with little real substance. But then, perhaps that’s not the point here.

Aside from obvious comparisons with Dante’s Divine Comedy, the film’s perspective on hell bears some strange parallels that I have noted previously with the work of C.S. Lewis and George Bernard Shaw. All three suggest (Lewis in The Great Divorce and Shaw in Man and Superman) that the barrier between heaven and hell, and those who go to one place or the other, may not be a physically insuperable one.

In What Dreams May Come, hell is a place for those who do not know they are dead, who refuse to acknowledge reality. In Shaw’s play, the difference between the people in heaven and those in hell is a question of temperament. Philosophers (rational thinkers) go to heaven and artists (passionate feelers) go to hell. Both are happy with their surroundings. In Lewis’s book, the inhabitants of hell are not physically barred from heaven at all, at least the outer edges of it, and may visit as often as they like. But they hate it, and it seems a hostile environment to them. Although they could decide at any time to stay (up to a point), they won’t because they are too proud or self-centered.

All three works show people who were in hell deciding for heaven instead, but the similarities end there. The movie’s philosophy is all about the power of human love to transcend all barriers. That’s all very well, I suppose, but it (and the movie itself) seems more than a little empty when it’s left standing on its own.

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~ by Jared on April 23, 2006.

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